Rare, priceless. Click to play. (If only it were that easy. Screenshot from the landing page of www.harnoncourt.info.)
His full name, for the record, was Johann Nikolaus Graf de la Fontaine und d'Harnoncourt-Unverzagt, resonant with associations. Nikolaus for Saint Nicholas, on whose feast day he was born. Graf, or count, by dint of ancient bloodlines crisscrossing the map of Europe. La Fontaine perhaps as in Jean, poet of the polished fables? I couldn't say. Nor can I speak to the Unverzagt connection, other to say that the word means "undaunted." Certainly the shoe seemed to fit.
Beginning in the late 1970s, it was my good fortune to report on Harnoncourt's work on several occasions. If at first I wrote in the voice of the all-knowing critic I at the time aspired to be, I later chose him as a secret mentor, especially once we began speaking now and again, sometimes over the phone, sometimes after a show in his dressing room. From the first, the conversation unfolded as if with an old friend who had nothing to sell, nothing to prove. Of the Mephistophelean glamour maestros are known to cultivate one-on-one as well as before the public, there was never a trace. He spoke as a scholar and a seeker, open with his knowledge, his memories, his convictions, his doubts.
As a tribute now that he is gone, I've assembled my Harnoncourt file. Short descriptions of the stories follow, with links.
- My first in-depth experience of Harnoncourt's work came with his bewitching Monteverdi cycle at the Zurich Opera House in 1978, which I covered for The New Leader, that venerable liberal anti-Communist platform, then in its long Indian summer. (A boxed reissue of his Monteverdi recordings of that vintage is available on Warner Classics.)
- In 1986, I followed up with a deeply ambivalent review, for Musical America, of Harnoncourt's recording of Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail. In a remarkable program essay, Harnoncourt discussed the baleful implications of the score's Orientalist local color. The arguments persuaded me; the performance did not.
- In 1995, on the occasion of an anniversary reissue of the Harnoncourt discography on the Teldec label, the recording executive Kevin Copps invited me to contribute a general introduction, my most ambitious attempt to come to grips with Harnoncourt's goals and practice.
- In 2009, in a story for the New York Times on the reopening of the Theater an der Wien, originally built on profits from The Magic Flute, Harnoncourt spoke to me on the house itself as an original instrument. (Click through for quotes.)
- An introduction to a New York production of Haydn's Il Mondo della Luna in 2010, again for the Times, gave me a welcome excuse to recall Harnoncourt's in Vienna, and the extraterrestrial sound effects he achieved with wooden mutes for the strings, an accessory that languishes today in virtually universal disfavor. (More quotes.)
- Later that year, in another piece for the Times, my subject was Harnoncourt's triptych-in-progress of 20th century operas. Gershwin's Porgy and Bess at the Styriarte Festival in Graz got the marquee, but there was space as well for details on Harnoncourt's revolutionary account of Stravinsky's Rake's Progress in Vienna, plus a line or two on Berg's Lulu in Salzburg, a project Harnoncourt had already had to hand off to a junior colleague. (Yes, more quotes.)
Harnoncourt carried on virtually until the end. On December 5, he announced his retirement, pleading waning physical powers. Sadly for me, I missed his last seasons, But I treasure my last memory of him, in one of his rarest of rare American appearances, leading the Vienna Philharmonic in September 2010. The program consisted in its entirety of the six tone poems of Smetana's sublime Má vlast (My homeland). In a word: revelation. Orchestras play the water music of The Moldau all the time, and it's always a joy. Occasionally, they venture into the sun and shade of From Bohemia's Fields and Forest, and that is heaven, too. But when do we ever hear the other four? Let alone the whole cycle back to back? True to form, Harnoncourt went his own way, undaunted.